Ardent Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes, 1943-47
HAUSER & WIRTH | NOVEMBER 2 – DECEMBER 23, 2017
Arshile Gorky, Pastoral, c. 1947. Oil and pencil on canvas. Photo: Constance Mensch for The Philadelphia Museum of Art. © The Arshile Gorky Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York. Courtesy The Arshile Gorky Foundation and Hauser & Wirth.
On leaving the city to take up an extended residence in rural Virginia at Crooked Run Farm, a homestead owned by his wife’s parents, Arshile Gorky discovered a renewed connection with nature and landscape, one that had been dormant since his childhood on the shores of Lake Van, then part of Ottoman Anatolia. In Hauser & Wirth’s first presentation of the artist’s work, the curator Saskia Spender, Gorky’s granddaughter, has installed over fifty landscapes, including paintings and works on paper from 1943 to 1947.
Gorky was brave or indifferent enough to not be dissuaded from his path by the influence of already established painters, comparisons to whom may have proved demoralizing to some. Joan Míro is an obvious example. By not avoiding any similarity to Míro, Gorky found a way of painting that he thoroughly owned. It is interesting to recall that Míro’s paintings were steeped in the landscape of Cataluña—a place he had to flee, like Gorky from Anatolia, because of violent oppression—and that he, like Gorky, was claimed by the Surrealist-in-chief André Breton as one of the gang. Neither Míro nor Gorky was one of anyone’s gang. During the 1930s and 40s European painting in general, and Pablo Picasso in particular, was a big problem for any American that thought of him or herself as Modernist or anything other than provincial. Picasso was of course an influence on Gorky too, and before Jackson Pollock’s breakthough in the late 1940s, Gorky had already found a way past the Spanish artist’s overwhelming presence, without dismissing him—much in the same way as Picasso had moved away from Paul Cézanne without obscuring that debt.
There are many extraordinary works in this exhibition, produced during a period of extreme personal difficulties: In the short period, 1946 and 1947, Gorky would see much of his previous work destroyed in a studio fire, suffer a painful operation for intestinal cancer, experience a fractured neck in an automobile accident, and endure worsening marital problems. Within this context, Pastoral (1947) is typically not a literal landscape. The lines and shapes, color and surface, suggest a dynamic scenario, and whilst spatially corresponding to an experienced place, are more real and affecting than simple verisimilitude. The painting is full of invention, surprise, and yet free of pretension. Gorky moves the paint—greens, yellows, violet, red and black—around with profound sensitivity and daring. There are areas of barely touched canvas, and yet nothing is lacking because there is a sureness that doesn’t brook any tidying up. The precise placement of shape and color contains an abundance of emotional and intellectual nous. Just as the paintings contain pencil lines, the drawings on paper have equivalent oil color in colored crayon. Some drawings are direct studies for paintings—the iteration on canvas is no less fluid for having a previous life as a drawing. In contrast to Pastoral (1947), The Opaque (1947) is a varied modulation of greys. What came to mind when looking at this piece was how the paintings described by the curator as landscape can just as easily be seen as still-life—even though they are undoubtedly based on an experiential engagement with landscape—and this is maybe what connects Gorky to Cézanne. Cézanne created tableaux that interchanged associations, such as when a still life appeared like a mountainside and vice versa. Gorky’s significance as an artist able to establish something new for American painting, despite the debt he owed to European Modernism, was the singular importance he had for his friend Willem de Kooning, who, when asked where he came from, simply gave Gorky’s Union Square studio address.
DAVID RHODES has been the President of the School of Visual Arts since 1978.